16 February 2013
The temporary monks
A saffron orange robe, a faint smile on a serenely joyful face. At other times a frown or a shy expression. Noticing a Buddhist monk never fails to make me rapidly grab my camera, as if I were experiencing an extraordinary scene. It’s true that I do enjoy taking portraits, more ephemeral in nature than landscapes or monuments. I however often shy away from taking a picture, not wanting to appear impolite as I dare, still too rarely, to ask for permission or to engage in a conversation. The younger monks would sometimes actually be the first ones to pull out their smartphones to take a picture of me – maybe something to do with my blue eyes or my Australian hat?
In fact, most monks I encountered are “temporary” monks, as I learned afterwards, which probably explains why most of them carried smartphones and fancy cameras, when I had thought the scriptures did not particularly allow monks to own anything, especially superfluous possessions. In Thailand, just as in the neighbouring countries of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, young men ordain for only a couple of weeks to learn more about Buddhist teachings and earn the merit of loved ones. Such a monastic practice corresponds to one of the three Buddhist traditions that survives today (I’ll spare you the name), all of them varying according to location, cultural but also climatic conditions – monks are for instance allowed to wear warm clothes in cold climates, so I guess the image of a barely-clad century-old monk, eyes closed, sitting in the cross-legged posture of a Buddha on top of a Tibetan mountain covered with snow, in inhumanly-freezing weather... is just a myth.
In other countries, monastics live more isolated from local communities. There are also some interesting exceptions: Japanese monks and nuns are allowed to marry after receiving their higher ordination (not sure if that’s supposed to be an incentive?!). Japan is also the only country I visited so far where I noticed real begging monks, walking slowly among passer-bys, ringing a little bell at regular rhythm with one hand and carrying an empty bowl in the other, their eyes hidden by their large conical hat. I just spent thirty minutes trying to find a well-filmed video clip (not by me) that I remembered having seen perhaps a year ago – it was zoomed in on the monk’s hands and feet, and filmed in slow motion. Alas I can’t find it in my archived posts or emails.
What a contrast in any case to those teenage monks, running around, having fun or taking pictures just like ordinary tourists, or sweeping the floor of temple grounds to help with the monastic community's chores. It was however a surprise when one of them struck a conversation with me: I found out that he was a real monk despite his young age – he was probably in his twenties–, had a good command of English, was very polite and spoke in a calm manner that almost had me convinced on the virtues of meditation... but maybe not to the extent of hermit meditation in damp caves.